Just over two weeks before the last ballot will be cast, a GU Politics panel on the close of the 2020 election cycle predicted a Democratic blowout on Nov. 3.
The event, “Election 2020: What Might Happen,” featured Jessica Taylor, the Senate and Governors Editor for the Cook Political Report, Scott Tranter, CEO of Optimus Analytics, a data analytics firm involved in Republican Politics, and Josh Mendelsohn, CEO of Hawkfish, a data analytics firm working to elect Democratic candidates. The hour-long conversation moderated by Mo Eliethee (SFS ’94) was framed in the larger context of the 2020 election to provide a definitive outlook on what voters can expect on election night and in subsequent days.
Barreling towards what many Americans consider to be “the most consequential election of their lifetime,” the country is at a crossroads—and voters know it. In a year that has seen nearly 230,000 Americans dead from the COVID-19 pandemic, economic collapse with no government stimulus passed since March, and an undeniable deterioration in quality of life, Americans are set to respond by voting in unprecedented numbers. The U.S. Elections Project predicts more than 150 million voters will cast their ballots by Nov. 3 comprising 65 percent of eligible voters, which would be the highest percentage of Americans to vote in an election since 1908. On top of this, these energized voters are desperately searching for something they will never find: certainty their candidate will prevail as 80 percent of Donald Trump and Joe Biden supporters both believe their candidate will win.
For Trump supporters in 2016, disregarding a constant lagging in polling and slim odds of winning the Electoral College seemed to be the only hope. But to Clinton voters and campaign officials, the same data was like a prophecy of divine assurance—and so they embraced it.
On the eve of Election Day, nearly all reputable political forecasts showed a Clinton victory as almost inevitable. When Clinton didn’t live up to forecasts and Trump stormed through the Electoral College 304-227, Democrats reeled from placing their faith in numbers alone. State polling was rife with errors, and political forecasts miscalculated key assumptions—like overestimating Black voter turnout. Democrats began a painful reckoning with data and the fact that forecasting models do not give definitive answers, just an endless array of probabilities.
Four years later, distrust in data on both sides of the political aisle remains. In some of this year’s forecasts, the chances of a Trump win are even slimmer than four years ago—the FiveThirtyEight model has given Trump just a 12 percent chance of winning reelection.
Despite the narrative of a Biden blowout among mainstream media outlets, a Trump loss is inconceivable to his most ardent supporters. They even think a Trump landslide is imminent. They retreat into memories of four years prior: if all those people came out of the woodwork to vote for the man last time, perhaps, they will do it again.
To Biden’s supporters, every data point that shows he’s ahead is met with a degree of skepticism. Democratic Representative Emanuel Cleaver said it best in a recent interview with Politico. “Every time I get too happy I slap myself and stick my hand over a fire. I’m scared to feel like we’re going to win because we’ve seen what happened in 2016.” The polling debacle four years ago still haunts them.
The narrative that the 2016 numbers were dead wrong has become so entrenched in Americans’ minds it’s almost cliche. But Nate Silver thinks the idea of polling accuracy plunging in 2016 is “mostly bullshit.” Like Silver, Tranter still believes in the veracity of the 2016 forecasts; according to him, they were fine. What was wrong, Tranter says, was the American people’s interpretation of the data.
“Most people who read these things look at them for a binary answer: yes or no, win or lose,” Tranter said at the GU Politics event. “And in reality, a model isn’t designed for that.”
According to Tranter, models only give the probability a scenario will transpire if certain events happen to play out. As Tranter recently released a forecast in conjunction with Decision Desk HQ that gives Trump a 14.1 percent chance to win (the day of this event, 15 days before the election), he knows Trump could still prevail—even 14.1 percent odds can still transpire.
There are more than a few signs outside of data and political forecasting that point to a Trump loss, according to both Taylor and Tranter.
You could follow the money. In an election cycle expected to be the most expensive ever—exceeding $14 billion—there will certainly be more than a few interesting things to pick up on. Wall Street, which has benefited from massive corporate tax cuts and deregulation over Trump’s first term, no longer views his reelection bid as a smart investment. Many high-profile Republican donors view Trump’s reelection chances as unlikely; they are transferring all their resources to prevent a Democratic Senate Majority from materializing. According to Tranter, Trump is facing a similar obstacle he faced in 2016: a fundraising deficit against his opponent that this time stretches over 3 to 1. However, the stakes of 2020 are different: according to Tranter, the United States has never elected an incumbent president with a fundraising deficit.
You could look to Senate Republicans. The enduring image of Senate Republicans during Trump’s first term may very well be the almost daily running from reporters who would ask them questions about Trump’s latest vulgarity or indiscretion. But as they grapple with an increasingly likely scenario Trump loses the presidency and the collateral impact of a Democratic takeover of the Senate, they are beginning to do what seemed unthinkable over the past four years: distance themselves from Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has rarely said a bad word about Trump over the past four years, has separated himself from the President on at least two occasions relating to the White House COVID-19 response in the past few months. When Trump’s event celebrating the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett turned out to be a super-spreader of COVID-19, McConnell later said he was avoiding the White House, citing their lax pandemic prevention policies. And then there are the things Republican Senators are saying in private that directly contradict their public statements. In a leaked call with constituents, Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska denounced Trump for his flirtation with white supremacy, mistreating women, and making fun of his white evangelical base in private.
You could survey the American people’s feelings about their president. According to Taylor, Trump’s low favorability ratings are a major obstacle in his fight for a second term. She says Trump’s polling is much closer to where the failed reelection bids of Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were in their races, rather than the successful second term wins for Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. In a Gallup poll in October, Trump was viewed favorably by 47 percent of Americans. But Biden has reached a number Trump has never received in his first term: a majority of 54 percent. Not only has Trump never been viewed favorably by a majority of Americans ever, but he is also the only president in modern American history that can claim this title, according to Taylor.
You could look to Donald Trump Jr. In August, The New York Times reported on a private conversation between Trump Jr. and an unnamed conservative activist. Trump Jr. said, “We’re losing dude, and we’re going to get really hurt when we lose.”
The three panelists believe Trump’s chances of winning reelection have only gotten worse since then.
Since Trump spoke to a half-empty auditorium at his much-hyped Tulsa rally in June, his campaign has been in a gradual state of implosion. Rocked by a campaign shake-up that has seen his former campaign manager hit rock-bottom after blowing through almost one billion dollars of campaign cash, the Trump 2020 campaign—dubbed the “Death-Star”—is mirroring the same hankering for self-sabotage of four years prior—only this time it might explode. In a country whose voter’s top issues are the response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and how to get the economy back on track, the Trump campaign’s closing message is its conspiracy-filled claims about Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Seeing no significant bounce from the nomination of Barrett to the Supreme Court, the Trump campaign is seemingly out of tricks as it loses momentum down the home stretch to Election Day.
Tranter believes if the election had been held the second week of October, Trump would have lost—and it wouldn’t have been close.
“If it happened about a week ago, where you look at the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida and we assume the polling error is the same this cycle as it was in 2016,” Tranter said. “Joe Biden still wins those states.”
Partly because a majority of Americans hold a favorable view of Biden, Taylor is confident to rank the presidential race as Lean-Biden. Her own Cook Political Report projects a Biden win. In fact, their analysis shows that even if Biden does not win any of the states they currently rank as toss-ups (Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine 2nd Congressional District, North Carolina, and Ohio), he will still cross the 270 threshold. In order for Trump to win the Electoral College, he would not only have to win every state currently ranked as toss-up but also gain 22 electoral votes from states currently ranked as Lean-Democrat.
But Trump is not giving up—at least publicly. For weeks, the president has been zig-zagging through swing states in a last-ditch effort to stave off a defeat from the man he has labeled the “worst candidate” in the history of American presidential politics. In Pennsylvania, he’s begging suburban white women to vote for him again. But white women have deserted his coalition in part because of his response to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent racial justice protests that swept the nation; they show no signs of coming back. In Florida, he’s been forced to schmooze the same seniors who were the footsoldiers of his success just four years ago.
Taylor says the last moment in the 2020 presidential race that actually mattered was the evening of Sept. 29 when Trump and Biden faced off in the first presidential debate hosted by Fox News Journalist, Chris Wallace. By then over one million Americans had already voted, and tens of millions more would vote by mail or absentee in the next week (By Oct. 19, the day of this event, an unprecedented number of almost 30 million Americans had voted early). The debate was a make-or-break moment for the Trump campaign—he had been down by 6-7-8 points in national polling, according to Taylor.
It didn’t take long for Taylor to know that after watching Trump seemingly self-destruct with more than 73 million Americans tuning in, and gauging the immediate reaction from long-time GOP pollster Frank Luntz’ focus group, that the chances of a Trump second term had irreversibly sunk.
“One woman repeatedly after it kept saying Trump was acting like ‘a crackhead,’” Taylor said. “Which is a word I’ve never heard used to describe the President of the United States in a focus group before.”
According to Taylor, Trump’s diagnosis with COVID-19 just days later alongside seemingly everyone in his inner orbit and subsequent hospitalization not only further sunk his own reelection prospects, but it also threatened Republicans in tough reelection fights down-ballot.
“I was talking with Republican pollsters that were about ready to light their hair on fire the following week because they weren’t just seeing President Trump’s numbers drop—they were seeing that affect down-ballot,” she said.
Because all politics has become highly nationalized, the outcome of the 2020 presidential election will have consequences for every down-ballot race. Taylor is seeing more and more Republicans alarmed by internal polling—even races that Republicans were supposed to cruise to reelection in have now become competitive. In the words of Sasse, Republicans are “staring down the barrel of a blue tsunami.”
Despite Trump’s claim that Republicans will take back the House of Representatives, Taylor was so confident Democrats will keep their majority, the panelists didn’t even spend a minute discussing it.
“The House is going to stay in Democratic hands,” Taylor said. “In fact, at this point, I would say that Democrats are likely to pick up between 10 and 15 seats perhaps.”
To Taylor, the only races still up for grabs are in the battle for the next Senate majority. Taylor projects the outcome of the 2020 Senate election to be the exact reversal of what it is right now: a 53-47 Democratic majority. According to Taylor, Republican pollsters are increasingly coming to this conclusion; she said their best-case scenario is holding Democrats to a 51-49 margin.
Her projections in the Cook Political Report indicate a Democratic gain of anywhere between two to six seats. According to Taylor, the seat most likely to flip will actually be towards Republicans in Alabama. But the next eight seats most likely to flip are all in the Democrat’s direction.
If there is one lesson to take from 2016 it is that every Senate candidate that won that year mirrored the party of the state’s chosen presidential candidate. Recent polling from Pew Research suggests 2020 will be the same: just four percent of voters said they would vote for Biden or Trump and a Senate candidate from the rival party.
Yet both Republicans and Democrats are testing this precedent by pouring tens of millions into Senate races in states the other party’s presidential candidate is likely to win.
For Republicans, this state is Michigan. As Trump nears the end of his first term, pundits agree Michigan will be the state he is least likely to win a second time. According to Taylor, the Democratic incumbent Senator, Gary Peters, may be “vulnerable,” but he is likely to overcome his Republican challenger, John James, because of James’ association with Trump at the top of the ticket. Over the past four years, Trump’s standing has dropped significantly in Michigan—so much so that Biden is leading Trump by eight points in recent polling.
Democrats meanwhile have their eyes set on South Carolina: a Republican stronghold Trump will comfortably win a second time. But as the actress, Viola Davis, said in a recent ad for the Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison, “Something is happening in South Carolina.” Taylor agrees.
In the first week of October, Taylor made waves in the South Carolina Senate race by changing the race’s rating from “Lean-Republican” to “Toss-Up.” Because 11 percent of Republicans view incumbent Lindsey Graham unfavorably, Taylor is confident the race has become one of the most competitive in the nation. It also doesn’t help Graham that he is running significantly behind Trump. Recent polling shows a dead heat with both candidates winning in different polls.
“I went to college in South Carolina. I would never expect this race to end up as toss-up,” Taylor said. “But when you’re looking at a candidate like Lindsay Graham and there’s a ten-point gap among where voters trust him that shows there is some opportunity there.”
According to Taylor, vulnerable Senate Republicans this year are stuck between a rock-and-a-hard-place. If they go full MAGA, they risk losing the support of independent voters, and even moderate never-Trump Republicans. But if they distance themselves from Trump too far, Trump’s base—the Republican Party’s base—will not turn out.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic and the President’s falling poll numbers, Senate Republicans were already at a disadvantage, defending nearly twice as many seats as Senate Democrats this cycle (23-12). But according to Taylor, what has hurt their electoral prospects even further has been a self-inflicted wound made by Trump himself: his relentless assault on mail-in-voting.
“Republican Senators would be feeling a lot better had the President not tried to throw this whole broad way of voting—amidst a pandemic—under the bus,” Taylor said.
On March 30, the President called into “Fox & Friends” and claimed that if the United States made voting easier, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” On May 28, he tweeted in all caps, “MAIL-IN-VOTING WILL LEAD TO MORE FRAUD AND ABUSE. IT WILL LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY. WE CAN NEVER LET THIS TRAGEDY BEFALL OUR NATION.”
It’s not a coincidence Trump is attempting to sow distrust in the method of voting a majority of Democrats say they are going to use. But according to Tranter, Trump’s attempts to suppress mail-in-voting could backfire: he could suppress the votes of his own supporters, like seniors who are afraid to go to the polls because of the pandemic, but also believe—because of Trump—that mail-in-voting is fraudulent.
“No serious person in Republican operative politics thinks vote-by-mail is wrought by massive voter fraud,” Tranter said.
All three panelists agree a clear winner will not have emerged by the morning after Election Day unless the race is a landslide. According to Mendelsohn, this is not likely, because some battleground states, like Pennsylvania, cannot start counting the deluge of absentee ballots they have received until Election Day.
“Some states like Florida tally progressively, but other key states don’t count a single absentee ballot until Election Day” Mendelsohn said. “In states like that, you’re really going to have a skewed result if you’re just looking at the numbers being reported by a Secretary of State.”
The image of a “red mirage” materializing on Election Night, covering up a Biden landslide or even a slight Biden win is not just a hypothetical to Tranter; he thinks it could very well happen.
“It’s not an inconceivable scenario in the state of Pennsylvania the President is winning by 7-8-9 points on Election Night, but over the course of the next 72—if not 96 hours—he slowly gives away his lead as more Democratic votes come in.”
The president knows this, according to Mendelsohn. In fact, he wants the race called Election Night. He knows he will most certainly be ahead.
“We have a President that has been quite clear of his disdain for the process and therefore a deep desire to declare victory early and to suggest any variation in the numbers thereafter is malfeasance,” Mendelsohn said.